Going back to 2010, Clay Matthews has been the Green Bay Packers’ most important defensive player.
But this year, Mike Daniels has surpassed him for that honor.
On Sunday, the Packers managed to get by without Matthews in their 34-27 win over Detroit. In part that's because even with Matthews sidelined by ankle and hamstring injuries they still had good outside linebacker play from Nick Perry, who's having by far the best season of his five-year NFL career.
But for the third straight week, we saw just how irreplaceable Daniels is on the Packers’ defensive line. He has been the linchpin for a run defense that leads the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game and per carry. He’s also a key pass rusher on the interior. He’s the guy who makes this defense go.
Against the Lions, Daniels didn’t put up an impressive stat line: one tackle, one tackle for a loss, and one quarterback hit.
Even his numbers from Pro Football Focus, while good, were hardly exceptional: one quarterback hit, three hurries and one stop (i.e., a tackle that causes a “failed” play, based on down and distance).
But Daniels is a big reason the Packers’ defense is off to a decent start and was able to survive Sunday against the Lions without Matthews and three other injured starters (Sam Shields, Morgan Burnett and Letroy Guion). At age 27, Daniels is at the top of his game, and in a review of the game videotape it showed.
Sometimes Daniels’ impact on a big play is subtle, such as late in the first quarter when Julius Peppers dropped running back Theo Riddick for a six-yard loss. On that play, the Lions ran Riddick to the left, and Daniels pushed left guard Laken Tomlinson back a good yard. Riddick had nowhere to run but outside, and Peppers was there for the tackle after destroying tight end Cole Wick.
Daniels’ role doesn’t jump out on that play, because he was nowhere near the tackle. But if he gets pushed back a little, there’s room for Riddick to cut back inside. He didn’t, there wasn’t, and Riddick lost six.
A few plays later, with the Lions on the edge of the red zone, Daniels ended the drive with an athletic pass rush in which he nearly sacked Matthew Stafford and helped force a third-down incompletion. On that play he knocked Tomlinson out of his way with some help from Perry, then quickly covered about seven yards to get back to Stafford, who had to spin and run to avoid the sack.
Daniels quickly recovered to chase the quarterback as he bolted the pocket, and Stafford’s rushed throw on the run landed harmlessly incomplete near the sideline. There aren’t many defensive tackles in the league with the quickness to get all the way to the quarterback like that. It was a big play that got the defense off the field and held the Lions to a field goal.
Daniels’ uncommon quickness for a 310-pound player also provides defensive coordinator Dom Capers versatility with his blitz calls. On a second down about halfway through the second quarter, Capers ran a Double X blitz with inside linebackers Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez up the middle, and also dropped Perry on the outside into coverage.
With the two linebackers rushing from the inside, though, Capers needed someone as a contain rusher in the spot Perry vacated. That was Daniels, who lined up over the guard but rushed outside to keep Stafford in the pocket. Daniels then went one better and beat right tackle Taylor Decker around the edge and chased Stafford from the pocket. Stafford’s low throw on the run was incomplete, which set up a third-and-nine. Daniels is the only defensive lineman on the Packers' roster who could fill that role.
And on the goal line early in the third quarter, Daniels showed he also possesses pure power. On third-and-goal from the 1, the Lions ran 223-pound running back Dwayne Washington right at Daniels, who was lined up over right guard Larry Warford. Daniels came off the line low, pushed back Warford a couple yards, then shoved him aside and dropped Washington for a one-yard loss. That kind of play can win a game by keeping points off the board, though in this case the Lions went for it on fourth down and threw for a touchdown.
Either way, Daniels made the big play.
And he’s a big reason the Packers have given up 50 yards or less rushing in the first three games. More often than not, Daniels is dominating the player across from him, and it’s making him the Packers’ most indispensable player on that side of the ball.
Learning the ropes
At the end of training camp, Jayrone Elliott was a shaky bet to survive final cuts at outside linebacker. He basically hadn’t made a play in the backfield, run or pass, all camp. He owes his roster spot almost entirely to his play as a core special teamer.
But Sunday, we saw another reason the Packers might have stuck with the third-year pro. His glaring shortcoming last year was playing the run, where he lacked strength and awareness, but against Detroit he showed glimpses of both while helping to fill in for the injured Matthews.
Twice in the first half, Elliott wrecked run plays by handling a down block just the way you draw it up. On both, the tackle in front of him down blocked – this is, blocked the defensive lineman over the guard, rather than Elliott across from him. Elliott then did exactly what he should – he ran right up the tackle’s back rather than getting big eyes and bursting unblocked up field, which could leave a big hole for a running back.
On the first, Elliott took on the pulling guard, which set up Ryan to tackle Riddick for a one-yard loss; on the other Elliott was in great position drop Golden Tate on an end around for an eight-yard loss.
Those plays were a front-seven coach’s dream and a sign that Elliott might be growing into a viable outside linebacker.
» LaDarius Gunter, the No. 3 cornerback with Shields out, finally made the kind of play on a ball that won him a roster spot in camp a year ago, though he should have intercepted the pass in the end zone late in the second quarter that nearly hit him in the face mask. Gunter didn’t get his hands on as many passes in camp this year as in his impressive rookie camp, but he kept a touchdown off the scoreboard Sunday with his tight coverage on speedy Marvin Jones and ability to turn and find the ball.
» Punter Jacob Schum might have saved his job for the bye week with his leaping grab of a high snap from Brett Goode in the fourth quarter. The Packers were ahead 34-20 when Schum pulled down the high snap, than quick stepped and hit a 43-yard punt that while low was plenty good under the circumstances.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1